Buddhism "Westernized" - how is it?


From the second half of the nineteenth century, anticlerical intellectuals sought to replace Europe's biblical heritage with the ancient doctrines of India, which they considered more rational. Anthropologist Marion Dapsans shows how Buddhism became a new progressive philosophy whose goal is not so much the self-realization of individuals as the genuine reform of our world.

Buddhism in the Westerner's view is largely a product of European secularization. The history of the spread of Buddhism in the West is inextricably linked to the development of Enlightenment philosophy, and in particular to its projects of social renewal. It follows the proposals for reforming European society that spread and became increasingly radical in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1840s, Buddhism, along with other "Eastern" traditions, was seen as a source of inspiration for progressive and anticlerical intellectuals who wanted to get rid of Europe's biblical heritage and replace it with an older, purer tradition. The teachings of the Buddha seemed particularly suitable in this context because they discarded the concept of God and Savior, had no written revelation, and emphasized self-knowledge.

India, considered to be the cradle of the "Aryan" civilization, became the object of active research not so long ago - approximately in the period of XVIII-XIX centuries. This ancient region represented a huge reservoir of living traditions that needed to be revived, according to some intellectuals, in Europe as well. Buddhism, whose geographical origin had long been ignored, was at the same time identified as an Indian tradition. This allowed it to be included in the repertoire of 'Eastern' ideas that could serve as the basis for the desired 'new Renaissance'.

Rational and scientific method

Buddhism was perceived as "rational" even "scientific" because it was inherently atheistic. It ignored metaphysics, questions of the origin and meaning of life, content to offer a "method" for dealing with suffering. Since positivism, evolutionism, utilitarianism, and social concerns were in vogue at the time, Buddhism came to be seen as a political program that everyone could adopt for themselves before it could serve as a common basis for the progress of society. It was by allowing each individual to struggle against suffering, becoming a more morally stable being, that society as a whole could be transformed. In Europe, Buddhism quickly became a project to improve the world. In the hope of universal happiness, this social renewal was to be achieved through the spiritual improvement of each individual, rather than through the implementation of specific policies or the multiplication of charitable acts along Christian lines.

These features of European Buddhism in the second half of the nineteenth century are still relevant today. The most striking example of the "Westernization" of Buddhism can be considered the evolution of meditation, an important concept for Buddhist doctrine and practice. In the West, meditation has acquired the meaning of sitting relaxation, attention training, and moral improvement. Deprived of its original religious context, its goal is no longer the attainment of Enlightenment and a way of conscious contemplation of reality, but emotional and mental peace. In the modern world, meditation has become a popular tool for self-development and anti-anxiety for a large number of people from different backgrounds and even religious views.

What is the right way to meditate?

According to proponents of this concept, meditation will make the economy fairer, human and international relations will be pacified, and mental illness will be eradicated. Thus, the motives of today's advocates of Buddhism and meditation go far beyond profit. This social reform project requires new professionals: not only Buddhist monks and masters, but also trainers, therapists, doctors, researchers, writers, lecturers, and lobbyists. They are all paid for their services because their ideal calls for a new kind of economy ("enlightened economy" or "altruistic economy"). The peculiarity of these new temple merchants - merchants operating within the religious establishment and taking advantage of their intermediate position - lies in their extreme diversity, the absence or almost total absence of clear criteria for their legitimization, their extremely weak connection to traditional Buddhist institutions, and the fact that they are dedicated not to the search for enlightenment but to the improvement of human activities for social purposes.

The transformation of society

Ultimately, Western-style Buddhism is neither particularly religious, nor particularly "spiritual," nor fully political, nor truly therapeutic. It is a complete program for the transformation of society, using human beings as its starting material. It is based on faith in the notion of progress (both material and spiritual), not on a claim to ancient tradition. What is important is not centuries of maturing thought and developing rituals, but ready-to-use "methods" and "techniques" that will eventually lead to a more harmonious human society. The path to individual salvation offered by traditional Buddhism eventually evolved into a blueprint for an ideal society centered on the perfect, well-rounded human being.

Is the success of Buddhism in the West just a passing fad?

"It's certainly very exotic, and it's very original to say you're following a Tibetan master. This religion is particularly attractive to intellectuals because there is a kind of relativism in the Buddhist approach that is very much to the liking of skeptics and people who like to 'deconstruct.' For Buddhism, the world is a projection of the mind, it doesn't really exist. This is very appealing to those who reject what they call 'dogma', that is, clear statements about life." - says Marion Dapsans, a researcher of Buddhism and author of Buddhist Exhortations

Certain aspects of the Buddhist worldview and philosophy have become an important part of the culture of wellness and mindfulness in the West. Meditation as a way to relieve anxiety and train the mind is promoted by many public personalities, and its effects on the body are being researched by scientists from around the world. At the same time, interest in Buddhism is growing as the traditional religion of the West, Christianity, becomes less and less popular among the population.

Thus, although modern "European" Buddhism repeats the basic doctrines of the ancient religion from India, it has departed from its origins in almost everything. Today, elements of Buddhism have become part of a Western spiritual culture that seeks secularization.  Changed on "Western" soil, it has acquired a new image and continues to nourish the spiritual quest of modern intellectuals.


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